The rise of the digital city and why it’s so important

Why should UK cities digitally transform? 

Many think of digital cities as an end goal. In a way, our cities are already digital. Rather than thinking of digital cities as something that you can see, like faster trains, it’s actually the hidden stuff, such as data, that have the power to really change the lives of citizens. We won’t wake up one day and have digital cities. Similarly, we can’t design a master plan and try to design the perfect city of the future in advance. This means that rather than transforming towards an end goal, the digital city transformation should focus on building a city platform that enables others to innovate. With this new mindset, cities will be able to leverage new technologies much faster, be more open, better engage citizens and protect their privacy.   

Who is leading the way in terms of digital and smart cities in the UK and globally? 

There is no clear winner at this point. Lots of cities are coming up with different initiatives. London is leading the way in terms of publishing open data feeds and enabling startup ecosystem to solve problems for citizens. Transport for London has 80 different transport data feeds. There are more than 600 apps powered by this data, and they are used by as much as 42% of Londoners. A recent study indicates that this ecosystem contributes £130 million a year to the London economy. Another good example is Stockport Council’s latest Signposts initiative, which has data at its core. Signposts is a communicative bridge between social workers and the wide variety of agencies working locally in child protection, for example schools and Greater Manchester Police. Via Signposts, social workers now have a single view to access background information about young people and families in a safe and secure way. By building this end-to-end journey, more relevant data held by police and other agencies is accessible to support decision making. The simple visual interface allows professionals to spot patterns and quickly get a feel for issues and risks that are faced by a child or family. 

What technologies do cities have to adopt to become truly digital? 

There’s actually no silver bullet or one key technology that cities should embrace. As technology changes so fast these days, cities should shift their focus from the specifics of the technology to Platform Thinking, as well as how they can make data available in a consistent, secure way so third parties can innovate on their behalf. Under the City as a Platform model, the city only facilitates the flow of data between parties, rather than try to own the entire creation process or tech decisions.     

How can citizens, enterprises and the government work together to achieve success? 

As citizens, we often see inefficiencies when it comes to government services. In the Private sector, many companies have embraced human centred design and design thinking. Through this collaborative process that puts the user at the centre of the design, companies achieve better outcomes. If service creators engage citizens when trying to solve the biggest challenges that we are experiencing in cities today, we are likely to see more creative solutions that actually impact the lives of citizens for the better.   

How does security and keeping data safe factor into a smart city initiative?

With a significant rise in data leaks and security flaws, fueled by a rapid increase in connected devices and the Internet of Things and the volume of data that we are producing, security and privacy is more important than ever. ThoughtWorks is part of a consortium group under NESTA called Decode, where we are using the principles of the City as a Platform (CaaP) building an infrastructure with security and privacy as first class citizens, with a decentralised architecture. This model gives people ownership of their personal data. This model is focused on privacy and democracy, before technology, vendors and “owners” of the platform itself. By starting with the end user and beneficiary in mind, we stay true to the purpose, rather than the owner. The platform allows users to manage their data, including sharing it anonymously for the public good. 

What experience do you have in helping cities digitally transform?

Stockport Council embarked on an 18-month partnership with ThoughtWorks on Digital by Design programme. An investment in digital technologies and business transformation to enable many council services to be delivered online, support budget reductions, deliver better outcomes for citizens and build internal capabilities to meet the future needs of the authority. The new platform is designed to provide online self-service tools for the people of Stockport to use. Whether the need is to access information about benefits, report a faulty street light or schedule or cancel an appointment, residents of Stockport now have the ability to do so online.     

In Manchester, a group of passionate ThoughtWorkers wanted to show the huge opportunity that exists once city related data is available for processing. In less than six weeks, the team brought Tramchester to life, an award-winning mobile app that models Manchester’s tram network using available data and a graph database. It calculates the best route between two tram stations using a path finding algorithm. The technology behind this app means that Tramchester quickly processes data and is ready to face the future of more complex transport demands. 

How do you see the future of smart cities evolving? 

We expect the hype around digital cities to continue to grow and evolve. But rather than a single master digital city plan, the future will result in a number of interconnected solutions that work together cohesively. We must protect our citizens and build a model that doesn’t give one powerful entity to be the master of the digital city - it should be a combination of local authorities, large companies, SMEs and third sector organisations sharing data securely and working together to solve the future’s problems.  

Nima Montazeri, Head of Technology, Ventures at ThoughtWorks 

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